Hot days, cold brew: Asheville’s iced-coffee artisans

COLD FRONT: Eli Masem, front-of-house manager at Vortex Doughnuts, uses both the traditional toddy-brew and Japanese slow-drip methods for preparing cold-brew coffee. Photo by Jayson Im

If you’re still refrigerating your hot coffee overnight in order to achieve a cold, summertime pick-me-up, you should know that there’s a better way: cold brew. If you frequent local coffee shops like Vortex, High Five, Odd’s, Biltmore Coffee Traders, and others, you’ve already experienced their take on the low-acidity, high-flavor treat.

The people at Vortex Doughnuts are just as crazy about coffee as they are about their sweet, ringed stars. So much so, that they offer two types of cold-brewed preparations. “They don’t have vastly different tastes; we just do [two preparations] for two different reasons,” says Eli Masem, front-of-house manager.

The first method is the traditional toddy brew method, which involves steeping about 5 pounds of grounds in cold water overnight then filtering the concoction. “It usually lasts us a day, a day and half, to go through an entire bucket. We’re already selling four times as much cold brew as we did in the winter,” says Masem.

The second Vortex preparation applies the Japanese-style, slow drip. This method takes 24 hours and has a much smaller yield. Why bother with the slower, less productive method? Well, frankly, says Masem, it looks cool. The slow-drip preparation requires a special, mad-scientist glass tower that drips continuously for 24 hours. The grounds are perfused with hot water for 15 minutes, and the coffee gets double-filtered as it travels through the glass bulbs and tubes.

“They do this in a lot of shops in larger cities, but we wanted to do it because it gets people interested,” says Masem. “They come in and say, ‘What is that crazy thing?’ or ‘Is that thing from Breaking Bad?”‘ But, no. It’s this really delicate coffee preparation that the Japanese popularized.”

Masem adds, “I don’t think it comes out any better than the standard toddy cold-brew coffee, which I also like a lot. Some people think it’s more subdued, and it kind of is. If you had a really exciting coffee that was really fruity, you might lose some of that in the toddy cold brew.”

Though the toddy cold-brew isn’t as glamorous, it’s the method favored by most area coffee shops for its high yield and great taste. Emily Peele, operations manager at High Five Coffee Bar, accurately describes the toddy as a “glorified bucket,” but the humble approach doesn’t make it any less tasty — or popular. High Five lets its cold brew steep for 12 hours before straining it through paper and mesh filters. “You get a lot of rich, almost sediment-y chocolate out of it,” says Peele.

“It stands up to cream really well, and there is a ton of caffeine.”

High Five offers ready-to-go cold brew as well as bottled concentrate, which customers can cut with water at home.

While cold-brew coffee isn’t complicated to make, it takes time. A common thread among local coffee purveyors is that it’s hard to keep up with demand as the outdoor temperatures rise.

Audrie Blomquist, owner of Odd’s Cafe, steeps her cold brew between 12 and 18 hours. “We go through a lot of it, and we can’t keep up,” she says. “The method of making it isn’t like drop coffee. I can’t just throw another batch on. It’s an overnight process, and if we run out, we run out.”

Laura Telford, owner of Biltmore Coffee Traders, recently upgraded her toddy size to meet the high demand for cold brew at the Asheville City Market each Saturday. Her brew is steeped for 24 hours, and comes with coffee ice cubes for a little extra jolt.

So the next time you’re craving a cold coffee beverage, make sure it’s the good stuff. “You end up having this flat, stale taste when you take hot coffee and just let it sit,” says Masem. “You have something that was meant to be hot sitting in the fridge over night. It’s like having a nice, fresh hot piece of pizza or a hot steak and putting in the fridge and then eating it the next day. It’s not going to taste as good.”

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Waking Life Espresso’s flash-brewed cold coffee, which uses a 4-minute, “flash-brew” method that borrows a page from the beer industry. Its icy treat (available by the bottle or the growler) is brewed hot and chilled quickly. Learn more in the April 14, 2015, Mountain Xpress story by Kat McReynolds.

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About Lea McLellan
Lea McLellan is a freelance writer who likes to write stories about music, art, food, wellness and interesting locals doing interesting things.

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